A campaign to improve working conditions for graduate teaching assistants at the University of Manchester has attracted support from around the world and may go national, writes Cherry Canovan.
Justice for Teaching Assistants, which is supported by the Association of University Teachers, is seeking employment contracts, a standard pay rate and appropriate teaching resources for graduate teaching assistants.
Hundreds of people have signed a petition backing the demands. Support has come from universities around the UK as well as countries as far afield as Canada, the US and South Africa.
Gary Daniels, a PhD student at Manchester's International Centre for Labour Studies, is one of the campaign organisers. He said that because each of Manchester's departments set its own rates of pay, some teaching assistants got £18 a tutorial while others got £40. Typically, teaching assistants did not have written conditions of employment.
He said: "This type of employment relationship is replicated not just in Britain but throughout the world. Universities expect more and more of teaching assistantsI If action is not taken, assistants are going to get further and further buried - to the detriment of their research."
Mr Daniels said many people had asked whether the campaign could be expanded across the country. He said the AUT might get involved in any such development.
Campaigners were due to meet Manchester's personnel department on Thursday. The university does not recognise Justice for Teaching Assistants as an official association, but it will negotiate with the AUT.
A spokesperson said: "The university is having its first meeting with the AUT to look at arrangements for all teaching assistants. The university realises that there are some important issues that need to be examined and that it may need to review some of the current arrangements. We are happy to discuss these through the proper and established channels with the recognised trade union.
"However, the university has made it clear that as Justice for Teaching Assistants is not a recognised association, it is not prepared to deal with it directly. " The treatment of teaching assistants has become a big issue in the US, where there have recently been some efforts among assistants to unionise. These have made progress at some universities, but other institutions, most notably Yale University, oppose such moves.